Skippy Dies – Paul Murray

This review is not only the hardest I have had to do because of the books length, but also because it concerns the best book I have reviewed so far, and I want to do it justice. That is not to take anything away from those other books that I have genuinely enjoyed, but as far as plot, originality and writing skills go, there can be no comparison to Paul Murray’s wonderful, Skippy Dies.

The book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010 and shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Novel Award, justifiably so. Well perhaps it did not gain full justification for how great it is; I have not read all the other books in the categories, but for it to not have been a winner there must have been some impressive opposition. It is set in a prestigious Catholic Irish boarding school called Seabrook College and primarily follows the lives of best friends, Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster and Ruprecht Van Moren. The catch being that the novel opens with Skippy and Ruprecht having a doughnut eating contest, when Skippy drops off his chair and, not choking, dies whilst writing on the floor in doughnut jam ‘Tell Lori.’

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Rewinding, the Seabrook story is unravelled through the eyes of countless characters, who Murray flits in between seamlessly, sometimes between paragraphs let alone chapters. This is not confined to children either, the story flows in other directions as we see events through the eyes of teachers like Howard ‘the coward’ and the mysterious Father Green,  whose own backstory’s are as intriguing as the plot itself; Howard’s past interwoven in the tale. Having gone to a Catholic boarding school in England myself, also run by monks, there are interesting similarities to be drawn from this book – good and bad- and so anyone in the same position should find this equally as interesting.

As I’ve reached the topic I’ll continue. One of the reasons the book works so well is each character’s backstory is explored and developed so well that we really understand and appreciate their emotional state, and the reasoning behind any actions they might take. Murray leaves no stone uncovered as he reveals his characters’ pasts, family lives, and current issues. It allows us to begin to understand what each character is going through so that we aren’t left wondering why they are doing what they do.

Murray’s writing itself is excellent, thorough and stylish. He at once can be comic and tragic, tender when explaining life’s harshities, and downright dark. This is also where he succeeds so well; his ability to capture the teenage chat and banter. It would be easy for the dialogue between the group of boys to feel fake and contrived but this is never the case. At times it is carefree and loose but when he is delving into the darker parts, exploring drugs and prescription pill problems, it is hard and unforgiving.  As is the book itself and its subject matter, some of the issues are very sensitive and the boldness with which Murray tackles them is commendable. It is plastered all over the book and any reviews written how funny yet tragic the book is and I’m just the next person to say it, but it really has to be said. It can be hilarious and tear wrenching. The format he uses is also daring, and it works.  It is a risk to give the game away in your title and first chapter that the main character dies, but he executes the plot so well around it that you almost forget what is coming. But not quite… Knowing all the way through what devastation is waiting is very sad, because all the efforts and problems Skippy has are ultimately in vein, or simply unimportant.

Having earlier used Howard as an example praising Murray, to be slightly critical, for me it was when his problems and life were being explored that the book lost some of its pace, especially towards the end. I found him to be the hardest character to engage with and couldn’t find myself caring for him. That said, his character arc is very good… The same goes for Ruprecht, even though he is a main character and essential to the plot, I never really engaged with him as much as some other characters. However when his scientific experimenting is in full swing, it is jovial and shows the boys’ teenage camaraderie very well. But because there are so many characters, you are able to find your favourites and welcome it when the chapter concerns them; though admittedly it can be annoying having to wait for your favourite character to get a go.

Length is always going to be a discussed issue here too. At 660 pages it is not a quick, light read, but that shouldn’t put you off because it really is so brilliantly written. Sure, it could have done with 100 pages being knocked off but I suppose that would have compromised the books integrity to an extent. And I have read that Murray’s initial draft came in at about 1000 pages so we should be grateful that much got chopped off anyway. Once you get into it, the length won’t really come into your mind so just get into it and immerse yourself in the brilliantly created world of Seabrook. I’ll definitely be checking out more of Paul Murray, but for now, if you have the time and willpower, I really recommend this for anyone looking for some high grade modern fiction

★★★★★

You can buy it from Amazon here

Christopher Dorner – Will We Ever Know The Truth?

Christopher Dorner – Will We Ever Know The Truth?

Though it may be a little off my usual topic here is a link to an article I wrote on the recent Christopher Dorner situation. I wrote if for the website makeyouthink.org , a new website aiming to create an environment where discrimination can be openly probed and discussed, studied and examined to give the public a greater understanding of discrimination and the issues that surround it. Please give it a read and support the website as it is a great cause.

Silver Linings Playbook – Matthew Quick

Silver Linings Playbook is a strange one. It has been widely publicised recently with it being awards season in the film industry and the buzz that surrounded the adaptation; this has all culminated in a best actress Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence a few days ago. But I admit to being unaware of its existence as a book before I saw the film which in itself is a bit of an oddity as something like this would not usually have escaped my grasp.

 We all know the usual train of thought; the film is never as good as the book. But maybe it was because I saw the film first, or maybe it is a personal preference, but I’m going to come out and say it immediately. I preferred the film. That is not to say it is not a good book. I enjoyed the book but it just didn’t have the wit and impact of the excellent film. Whether that is down to the brilliant acting in the film, or the less than perfect book is anyone’s decision, but I am inclined to go down the acting route and also some changes to the story which made for a better viewing experience and storyline.

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 Anyway the book, it is the story of Pat Peoples, mentally unstable and trying to start his life fresh having been let out of a mental facility. His driving force in his aim to get his life back on track is the knowledge of reconciliation with his estranged wife Nikki, however although this drives everything he does, we immediately know that he is never getting back with her. Pat is not so enlightened though and spends the whole book trying to improve in order to win her back. The story focuses on his relationship with the equally unstable Tiffany who is his best friends’ sister in law. I won’t give any more away, it is up to you to either watch the film or read the book now.

 He is a complex character, a man who has obviously made many mistakes in his life leading up to this point. He obviously did not treat his wife well before ‘apart time’ and now he is trying his best to ‘be kind instead of right,’ even though what he thinks is being kind is really just being normal. His social graces are not good and normal life is a struggle for him to contain his character. His reactions are dictated by how he is treated, for example when his mother is nice to him, he reciprocates this by eating all of his pills without fuss. The same as how he has a great relationship with his therapist Cliff, who treats him as an equal and it brings the best out of him.

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The main plot is of course the developing friendship between Pat and Tiffany and how they help each other to overcome their personal problems. Essentially this is a mentally unstable love story but for me it is too obvious and contrived. It is too convenient. Of course there are countless stories where you know the two protagonists are going to end up together but to have two women involved from the word go and to also know from the word go which one he is going to end up with is slightly tedious when you have to get through nearly 300 pages before what you already knew is confirmed. Even if the woman he is going to end up with is completely crazy and has psychopathic-like tendencies you know she will be the one because that’s the type of tale it is. However there are other interesting relationships in the book. In fact every relationship that Pat has is scrutinised to some extent; the relationships with his father, brother, best friend. This is well executed by Matthew Quick as it gives us more insight into Pat’s mind as we see the struggles he has with different people and how he attempts to overcome them.  

I see this review sounds fairly critical but to be fair the book is not bad by any standards. It is well written and on a sensitive subject. There are some creative ideas in it, like an exchange of letters which drives the plot in a non traditional manner. I think the story was there, but in my opinion just not fully realised. The minds who have adapted it for the screen did a terrific job of bringing what was there to life. Like I said though I saw the film first and it could well explain my issues with the book, so to conclude I’d have to say if you’ve already seen the film then you’re not missing much by not having read the book. This is what makes me think that maybe there’s a reason I hadn’t heard of the book before the film was made. However if you haven’t seen the film yet, give the book a go and let me know what you think from the other way round, I’d be interested to know.

★★★  Click here to buy Silver Linings Playbook from Amazon

Desolation Angels – Jack Kerouac

‘It’s the beat generation, its béat, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat.’

Many are aware of the Beat Generation and its notoriety, but few know much else of it and its main characters, bar a name or two and that book… When reviewing Kerouac there is always the temptation to compare it to On the Road, however you have to be careful when doing so, because On the Road is certainly not the be all and end all of Kerouac. Sure it’s his most famous, and everyone’s heard of it, but it’s definitely not his best. Having said that though, Desolation Angels does merit certain comparisons to On the Road due to its road trip nature (in book two anyway).

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So the novel is split into two books and it opens with a melancholic Kerouac gazing at Mt Hozomeen in his role of fire look-out, lamenting over ‘the void.’ I should say that for a fan, the first few chapters are beautiful. Vintage Kerouac, typically written in his flowing spontaneous prose. But it does carry on in the same vein for some 70 pages and slowly begins to grate on you. This first part is taken directly from his journal of the time he spent on the mountain and this much is evident as it is very journal-like, but it does drag on for a little too long so that by the end we just want him off the bloody mountain and back in civilisation. Kerouac is at his best with forward momentum in his narratives, when he gets lost in thought and memories it can get a little weighed down. Discussing this with a friend, he raised an interesting point about juxtaposition and the first book being slow and the second frantic. I see what he was saying, maybe it was all part of the plan but I am inclined to disagree. This is because I know that Kerouac initially wanted book two to be published as a standalone novel, so it feels almost like two halves of different novels stuck together in order to fill a quota.

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That said, those are my only qualms. When he does get down it is brilliant. For anyone who loved On the Road, book two of Desolation Angels blows it out of the water. The pace picks up as he meets Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and eventually Bill Burroughs. But even with the ripened speed and the resumption of normal life Kerouac is still withdrawn but now it is all the more revealing as we learn why. Passages on his need for solitude and the ‘search for peace as an artist’ allow us into the mind of the man. One of the main things about this book that I enjoyed so much was how revealing it was into Jack Kerouac himself. It is a brutally honest and emotional work.

Kerouac, Ginsberg & Co. in Mexico

Kerouac, Ginsberg & Co. in Mexico

Book two is where the On the Road lovers will be satisfied. The drug taking (which is a lot more explicit than in On the Road), freight train hopping antics begin, and the freedom that a generation identified with is once again present as they travel around on a whim looking for kicks in Mexico, New York and Tangiers. But it is also in book 2 where his depression really takes over and by the end, the Jack Kerouac everyone thinks they know becomes a different man. The book has so much depth to it than, it is hugely meditative and telling of the depression and separation Kerouac felt from the ‘hipsters’ and indeed his own friends of many years. There is a particularly poignant passage describing his resentment of the Beat Generation, calling it ‘all an enormous drag’ and ‘to think that I had so much to do with it.’ But that is the brutal honesty you get out of this book as he lays all his feelings on the page. As saddening as it may be, it is fascinating.

All in all it is a great and enlightening read that is only irritating because it takes so long to get going. Even if by the time it does you’re having such a good time you’ve forgotten all about book one.

4_5_star_rating

Click here to buy Desolation Angels from Amazon

The Kerouac Conundrum

I have a dilemma. To review books, I need to read books. But I can’t just review books by the same author. Or can I? No, I can’t. That would be boring for everyone. But this is where my problems begin. See photo below…

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I have all these lovely new Kerouac books and I want to read them all, but now I am reviewing everything I read I can’t just power through them like any normal human being. Sure I read On the Road long ago so that’s not an issue but the rest of them? They look at me in my bed at night begging to be picked up and read. Those appealing black and white photos of the man in his prime (big up Penguin, they’ve nailed all the front covers to Kerouac’s books). Enticing back covers with tales of freedom and true insights to the man himself… They call to me. So I’m reading Desolation Angels, and sometime next week you will get to hear all about it, but after that I’m going to have to rein myself in and start a system.  I am going to alternate between Kerouac and everyone else. Purely for your sake I tell you. If it was up to me and I didn’t have to think about you, I would not be showing this mercy. This compassion. The hipster inside of me says

‘Screw them, they’ll dig it.’

But the voice of reason reminds me that for you laymen there is such a thing as too much Kerouac.

So anyway, this is fair warning. You can expect a fair few Kerouac posts over the coming months. Not that it should be a problem; I mean everyone loves Kerouac don’t they? No? Well I do so you can all put up with him and maybe by the end you will too…Or perhaps the world will turn upside down and I won’t.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón- The Angel’s Game

This book is the prequel to Zafón’s earlier The Shadow of the WindI read this book a few years ago now and very much enjoyed it (although I remember enjoying The Shadow of the Wind more). He is a hugely talented writer (however criticisms have been voiced at the plot) and what makes this novel all the more interesting is that it is a novel about books and the power of words. Upon reading it, this paragraph struck me as the most beautifully written passage about writing which stayed with me long after finishing the book. The haunting nature of it creeps up on you and i’m sure any writer can relate to  the feeling conjured from the words. It has been in my notebooks ever since I finished reading the book. Enjoy.

 

‘He worked all night and collapsed from exhaustion at dawn, possessed by strange dreams in which the letters on the page trapped in the typewriter would come unstuck and, like spiders made of ink, would crawl up his hands and face, working their way through his skin and nesting in his veins until his heart was covered in black and his pupils were clouded in pools of darkness. I would barely leave the old rambling house for weeks on end, and would forget what day of the week it was, or what month of the year. I paid no attention to the recurring headaches that would sometimes plague me, arriving all of a sudden as if a metal awl were boring a hole through my skull, burning my eyes with a flash of white light. I had grown accustomed to living with a constant ringing in my ears that only the murmur of wind or rain could mask. Sometimes, when a cold sweat covered my face and I felt my hands shaking on the Underwood keyboard, I told myself that the following day I would go to the doctor. But on that day there was always another scene, and another story to tell. ‘

Carlos Ruiz Zafón- The Angel’s Game

Hello Junkies

The first post. Always the hardest, therefore I will not drag it on for the sake of the word count. What I will say is that I hope that anyone reading finds the site navigable (customizing blogs is not my forte) and indeed the content enjoyable. Now, what you can expect to be posted on this is probably exactly what you would think from the title; musings on, well books. I am going to publish my own reviews on all the books I read and whilst I read these books, any old posts that I feel relevant. Now whilst I get on with some reading so that you have something to read, I leave you with a quote from one of my favourite authors,

“And if there is anybody out there who feels crazy enough to want to become a writer, I’d say go ahead, spit in the eye of the sun, hit those keys, it’s the best madness going, the centuries need help, the species cry for light and gamble and laughter. Give it to them. There are words enough for all of us.”

– Charles Bukowski

I hope you enjoy yourself on this site and please feel free to contact me with any queries or qualms.

Harry

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